For 12-year-old NASA hopeful, free tuition to ASU Online

Alena Wicker, already enrolled and taking classes at Arizona State, has dreams of becoming an elite engineer by the time she is 16.
By: | June 9, 2021
Desert Financial Credit Union, Arizona State University and the Phoenix Mercury present 12-year-old ASU freshman Alena Wicker with a gift of full tuition coverage. (Photo courtesy of Arizona State University)

Last month, Alena Wicker began what is sure to be a promising journey through higher education, taking her first general education courses virtually at Arizona State University. Her goal is to become NASA’s youngest female engineer. She is only 12.

Recognizing the uniqueness of her talents and wanting to honor her already outstanding academic achievements, the university, Desert Financial Credit Union and the Phoenix Mercury last week gave the prodigy a fully paid-for tuition gift during a WNBA game.

The donation was part of an initiative from the Mercury called “Believe in Women” that pays tribute to women – and girls – who are transformational in their communities.

“Many of us are familiar with the African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ and the truth is, it ‘takes a village’ to achieve just about any meaningful change in our world — from fighting disease to uniting for peace, and in this case, helping a 12-year-old girl get that much closer to her dream of becoming a NASA engineer, ” said Stephanie Lovingood, Senior Activation Manager of Global Partnership Solutions at the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury.

Wicker is well on her way toward achieving those dreams. She is studying astronomical and planetary science and chemistry in Arizona State’s School of Earth and Space Exploration online program in hopes of earning a degree in mechanical engineering – and eventually getting to NASA. She will be 16 if she remains on that tracks and graduates.

“The gift of tuition coverage pays tribute to the spirit of putting big dreams into action,” said Jeff Meshey, president and CEO of Desert Financial. “Most of us dreamt about what we wanted to do when we were little…it sounds like she’s actually going to do it. I think we can help her dreams come true. The sky’s the limit for her, literally.”

Wicker, from Cedar Hill, Texas, earned her high school diploma this year after being homeschooled by mom Daphne McQuarter, who encouraged her to pursue science and math. Her quest to be a NASA engineer began at age 4 when she started building with complex LEGO sets as a young girl. She just recently completed two behemoths—the 7,541-piece Ultimate Millennium Falcon and the 5,923-piece Taj Mahal.

Building and science exploration aren’t her only passions. She also has started a website and podcast called Brown STEM Girl that she says will create a foundation that will do what the Mercury, ASU and Desert Financial have done for her – give scholarships to girls pursuing STEM careers.

“How many 12-year-olds do you work with that are so motivated to be learning, to be in college?” said Matt Lopez, executive director of Admission Services at Arizona State University. “That alone is amazing. But she is so down to earth, so dedicated to learning and also to ensuring that there are opportunities for her peers.”

Unique path chosen

Choosing ASU’s online program is another unique part of this growing story. While Wicker is meeting directly in Tempe with some of the faculty and staff that will help in her journey, she will be conducting the bulk of her work at Arizona State virtually.

“She found the perfect school. What we do in our innovation and what we do with opportunity, she is able to do through ASU Online but still have those faculty connections,” Lopez said. “For her circumstances and for a lot of students’ circumstances, that opportunity can be found in more than just the traditional route of brick and mortar.”

Wicker is not the youngest to enroll in U.S. college or university. There are many examples of high-achieving pre-teen students who’ve earned degrees before age 16, including several in the past year. Among them is Lucious Garrity, who managed to earn an associate’s degree from Chatfield College in Ohio at age 12 and headed to Miami-Ohio last fall to pursue a bachelor’s in computer science.

Jack Rico earned four associate’s degrees in two years from California’s Fullerton College – in Social Sciences, Social Behavior & Self-Development, Arts & Human Expression, and History—culminating with his final one achieved at 13. He is furthering his studies at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

David Gaines, a 16-year-old biology student, became the youngest graduate candidate from Georgia State University Perimeter College last year. He has dreams of being a neurosurgeon, neurologist and attorney.